Shantytowns, the author argues, have been “a decentralized, self-built, market-based solution to the affordable housing shortage.”
In her broadly researched debut book, Goff (American Studies/Univ. of Virginia) traces the history of shanties in America, beginning with Thoreau’s famous cabin on Walden Pond, constructed from a dismantled shanty built by Irish railroad worker James Collins. Thoreau, however, “exiled the shantytowns built by railroad workers” when he transformed the shanty into a house that promoted “a certain kind of American narrative” of simplicity and communion with nature. Goff identifies other such transformations by writers, social reformers, urban planners, and artists. In newspaper dispatches, Edgar Allan Poe, for example, “wrings poetry out of the shantytown and saddles it with sublimity.” However, in the 19th century, social reformers condemned shanties as “hovels” or “huts,” marginalizing residents as “foreign.” Despite the evidence of “domesticity and industry,” they created “anxiety…about the spread of crime and disease.” In reality, writes the author, inhabitants of the many shantytowns in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C., were hard workers invested in their communities. “The shanty,” she asserts, “was a migratory house form come to rest in growing cities, where it inspired a working-poor aesthetic of dwelling that reflected values of reinvention and adaptation.” And privacy: the communities’ narrow, winding paths afforded some protection against “supervision and surveillance” by intrusive public officials. Goff reveals how shantytowns were evoked with humor, affection, and nostalgia in art, literature, plays, and song. Residents were romanticized, praised for their individuality, unconventionality, and ingenuity. But in Depression-era America, shantytowns, identified as “permanent slums,” became vulnerable to urban renewal. The author’s suggestion that contemporary shantytowns could be a “promising” housing solution is undermined by her naïve assertion that single room occupancy hotels “were popular with poor people” though failing to meet housing standards “imposed by the liberal establishment.”
An interesting history lacking a prescription for the future.